Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pacifists are Not Christian

I will be the first to admit; there are many things in the world that I really don't understand. And I say that not out of a some feigned naivete adopted to illustrate absurdity, but rather in the much more literal sense. There are some stances that seem so hypocritical and inconsistent that I really can't see how anyone could rationalize them, or proclaim them with any degree of fervor for that matter. And being somewhat of a self-proclaimed Anarchist (everyone run and hide!), I run into people like this constantly. There's no shortage of people who will sell out their own philosophy on the drop of a hat. But probably the most intriguing group in this paradigm is the liberal-progressive Christian.

As most people know, I really have no quarrel with Christians. In fact, I hold a great deal of sympathy for them and feel, if anything, that they are overly-persecuted in popular culture today. I've known, worked with, and loved many wonderful Christians in my lifetime. So I don't want anyone to be offended by or misunderstand my criticisms here. That being said, I believe there's a wide discrepancy in what they believe and the teachings/philosophy they claim to believe in. I see this discrepancy all the time but it hit me with some real vigor in particular when I was recently browsing some commentary in the IMDB forum of all places. I had been perusing some of the threads discussing the (possibly) upcoming film adaptation of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Now, I'm a huge fan of Ayn Rand; not so much for her metaphysical or epistemological beliefs, but for her broader philosophical and socio-political understanding of how things are and should be. That is to say, I may not believe the things she believes for the same reasons, but I am very sympathetic to the implications of her conclusions. For all that we differ, she's certainly a fellow-traveler and has been a huge part of my political inspiration.

What seemed to be taking place on the IMDB forums is that some threads were made to ask and answer pertinent questions regarding the film while others (more than half) seemed to be exclusively argumentative threads hosted by Objectivists (Ayn Rand's philosophy) and their nay-sayers. I was reading through some threads of the latter type, and it kind of surprised me how openly Rand and her philosophy was maligned by self-proclaimed progressive Christians. From what I gathered, they were trying to show the hypocrisy of right-wing/conservative Christians who like Rand. They pointed out the most obvious fact that Rand was an avowed Atheist (of course). But more to the point, they also pointed not only to her disillusion regarding modern-day altruism, but even further to what they perceived to be an obvious product of that stance, her belief that the state should not provide any form of welfare for people in need.

I found some of this commentary to be very interesting but also befuddling. While I'm not a religious person, I would say that I derive my political and philosophical beliefs from my ethics. And, for the purpose of this conversation, I would say that my ethical views are not only largely compatible with but were, in part, actually adopted from Christian morality to a large degree. I was raised in the Catholic Church and went to parochial schools for the better half of my informative early years. So I don't consider myself to be some wayward rogue in the realm of knowledge concerning Christian doctrine. But I would say what really concerned me regarding the direction of these virtual accusations was actually two-fold.

My immediate thought regarding the issue of liberal criticism of conservatives in relation to Christian ethics was that there were certainly better things you could pummel them with, ideologically. In fact, liberal Christians hold some of these criticisms at the forefront of their beliefs. Many progressive Christians oppose various wars and foreign occupations because they cannot ethically conceive giving consent to the loss of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being lost in the conflict. Most of them will openly say that unless we are being directly threatened or are acting in self-defense, then the loss of any human life is unwarranted. And that belief is most certainly in line with the Christian perspective. But then what of the belief that government should provide welfare for the needy? Isn't this perfectly in line with the Christian perspective as well?

The simple answer, and I know many progressive Christians do not want to hear it, is, "No." Let us be clear here. In the initial back and forth taking place on the IMDB thread(s), there were actually two criticisms being made regarding this; one was the direct criticism of the Objectivist belief regarding altruism, but the other was the implication of the product of those beliefs; a lack of support for government welfare and intervention. I don't believe those proffering these criticisms actually thought of these as separate criticisms, as one directly follows the other. But rest assure, although subtle, there is a large difference between the two.

What may be even more subtle, in terms of understanding, however, is the Objectivist belief in the evil of altruism. This, on its face, is probably going to repel any Christian, regardless of political persuasion, and is also probably the most damning argument left-leaning Christians could/should have of Christian Ayn Rand fans. I'm not an expert on Objectivism, but if progressive Christians really understood the intricacies of the Objectivist view regarding altruism, it may not be as damning as it appears at face value...which is considerable. Rand brings to light a misconception regarding altruism, the belief that it simply implies doing good for others. But in reality, this is only true if the act is selfless. Rand refutes this repression of the ego and asserts not only that selfishness is good, but that many acts of so-called altruism are in fact selfish in nature, and as such, are not altruistic at all. For instance, many people do good deeds to be rewarded socially, to feel good about themselves, or to win favor with their deity of choice (to get into heaven, etc.)...even if they don't consciously realize it.

Ironically, Rand is NOT NECESSARILY even against such acts of kindness as they aren't truly altruistic. If it gives someone a sense of personal satisfaction and value to do something for someone, then this is not truly selfless in the Objectivist sense. So in this way, what she was really railing against was the blind obedience to comply with wishes that directly oppose your own interests, values, and beliefs. Her belief seemed to be not only aimed to dissuade religious people from blindly obeying the precept of obedience from their perceived God (which Rand didn't believe in anyways) but to also point out that they weren't even really being selfless in the first place. You can see how this can get philosophically confusing very quickly. But nevertheless, regardless of what you actually believe, you could see how someone would believe that the condemnation of altruism is not compatible with Christian values. In fact, there was even discussion of the tenets of Satanism being largely based on Objectivism. And for anyone who is interested, this is actually true. Of course, the comparison was made to impune Objectivism and essentially scare Christians away from it. But this is beholden more to the fact that Christians are led to believe that Satanism and its belief-system is simply the inverse of Christian values, which isn't true at all. But that's a subject for another post maybe.

But disregarding their first criticism of Objectivism, is the subsequent criticism of the belief that government should not provide welfare valid? I think liberal Christians, although they aren't aware of it, are going to have a much harder time selling this criticism philosophically. Firstly, when talking about any rational action, we are necessarily discussing a means-end framework. And as such we always find ourselves asking the proverbial question; "Do the ends justify the means?" What are our ends here? Christians adhere to the words of Jesus, asking us to sacrifice of ourselves to help others in need. And so, they believe that we should help those in need, be it through various services and/or compensation. Sounds simple enough. Outside of the whole discussion of altruism, I think a good deal of us can agree on that. In fact, I'm on board so far. So what are our "means" to meet this end?

Well, there's the obvious ways in which many of us can voluntarily help by donating our time or money to various organizations to help meet this end. But in the political realm, this doesn't quite hit on the real issue. Up until this point, most of us are in agreement, whether you're conservative, liberal, libertarian, whatever. The real fork in the road is what liberal Christians see as additionally acceptable means to meet these ends; namely, using government to steal or to force people to give their wealth or labor to other groups of people that are perceived to be in need (or possibly well-connected, politically). And I think this is where the disconnect really is for most people.

Liberals don't seem to want to consider the means by which they wish to achieve their goals in this case. And even more to the point, they infer that anyone who opposes the means by which they want to meet their ends, actually opposes the ends themselves. In this case, they see a group of people that does not believe in coercion or stealing to help those in need, infer that such opposition means that they don't wish to help people in need at all, and assert that their unwillingness to help those in need is simply Un-Christian. But is this view fair or even consistent? If they were being honest with themselves, I think they'd be inclined to decline on both accounts.

It's very perplexing and ironic at best. Liberal Christians believe that the ends of ridding the world of terrorists does not morally justify unprovoked wars or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, even if that were a practical way of achieving those ends. And they understandably gawk when they are accused of not being patriotic or not wanting to stop terrorists. So why then is it so hard for them to grasp that being opposed to theft and coercion does not put one in direct opposition to charity? Are both beliefs not based on the same ethical system that derides the initiation of force upon the innocent? I think we can safely say that Jesus would have both wanted us to help the poor and stop people who terrorize and kill the innocent. But in the context of HIS OWN TEACHING, is it really so hard to understand that he would NOT HAVE APPROVED meeting those ends by killing and/or stealing from innocent people? Is it just me, or do right-wing Christians and left-wing Christians, in their own spheres, only seem to be consistent with their own ethical and philosophical views about half the time?

And that is my main point of contention with both groups in all honesty. Sure, you claim to believe whole-heartedly in the words espoused by a great man over 2000 years ago, but do you really live those words in your worldview? Can your political views fit into that moral compass? And if not, are your political views REALLY more in line with that moral standard than the Objectivist view? At its heart, the libertarianism that Rand and her beliefs inspired is ultimately about a form of pacifism; that we should be weary of initiating harm upon others...even if it seems practical. Have we become so detached from the Golden Rule that they are now just the words of some forgotten philosopher, even to those who consider him their God and Savior? What is the atheistic Objectivist to think of modern-day Christian counter-parts; a group of people who cannot even live the word of their own God as well as their detractors? The Objectivist may be confused or baffled by them, but there is certainly one thing he can gather from his experience with them. Christians are certainly not pacifists.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Monastica ex Ethos ex Animadverto

For quite a while, I've held an almost nagging belief that religion (in part) is the result of an objective ethical reality, and not the other way around. That is to say, I think when most people think of their own personal ethical code, they generally believe it is derived from their religious beliefs. And, for what it's worth, in many ways I believe this is true for any given individual. There is certainly a stage in life, particularly when we are young, where moral boundaries are much more ambiguous to us. And it's fairly obvious that, for many of us, the religious beliefs handed down by our parents and our culture have helped solidify our moral convictions. But what are the true origins of these second-hand belief systems? The answer may be more complicated than most of us would think...and being able to parse some of the more subtle nuances regarding the differences between religion and an objective ethos has some interesting implications.

When we consider the origin of religious morality, most people are simply inclined to believe that THEIR beliefs were divinely inspired or derived. That is to say, that members of most religions would point to God, the supernatural, or the esoteric as the source of their moral beliefs. And so you'll have, "It is wrong to murder because Jesus gave us the Golden Rule" or "It is wrong to murder because Adonai gave us the sixth commandment" and so forth. But when you begin to step outside of the sphere of your religious convictions, this explanation begins to make less sense. Sure, it's true that, if your religion pans out to be objectively true, then you can rest your dispositions against that reality. But even if that is the case, then the objective truth of your religion by definition excludes many, if not all, other religious beliefs from the realm of reality. So let us say that you belong to some particular Christian sect who turns out to have nailed everything, religiously speaking. If you were somehow to objectively conclude that Jesus, the Son of God, walked the earth and died for the sins of all mankind and He alone, in union with Father and Spirit, was THE divine source, then you could conclude that the words your ancestors brought to bear were objectively true, and that their beliefs as well as yours, in context, were truly divinely inspired. You could then rest assure that the moral tenets of your religion were simply predicated upon the wishes of your divine creator.

But what of all the other religions in the world? Even if one religion is exactly correct in their understanding, then that means there are thousands of sects that are "off" or just completely wrong. If their supernatural beliefs about the nature of the universe turn out not to be divine, then what is the source of the fabrication regarding their explanation of our nature and, more importantly, the source of its accompanying ethos? And prodding even further, why does it seem as though, even with very different views regarding the nature of the universe, so many of these religious sects have arrived at very similar ethical beliefs? For instance, you will have to look fairly hard to find any religions that endorse unwarranted murder, theft, or fraud. Sure, the one sect who MAY have their religion nailed correctly can simply point to the divine to explain their beliefs, but who do the rest of us point to ultimately? We could, enraged, claim that we've all been had by our ancestors. But this only pushes the question further back. If these other religious stories are indeed false, then why isn't there as much variation in their views on ethics as there is in their fabrications regarding the divine?

These questions are why I'm inclined to believe that there is an objective reality underlying morality. It's a point that I have a hard time explaining, as I'm certainly not as eloquent or learned as a philosopher or a psychologist. But it's hard to ignore the fact that while there is certainly a wide variance in the framework of different religions and cultures, we all seem to be inclined to believe that it's not OK to steal from, or break your word with, another person. These moral tendencies are recognized by some political persuasions as "Natural Law." It's what we use to codify what we perceive to be objective morality; man is to be set free from force and coercion. Given this, it is still understood that there can be great variance in ethical beliefs between various religions. They all seem to make exceptions to their own rules in unique ways, and those exceptions may evolve over time. But, nevertheless, it's not outlandish to recognize the uniquely similar ethical tendencies of these various faith-based frameworks.

Knowing this, is it ridiculous to believe that, even in the realm of ethics, that religion may simply be the prism through which we accept universal realities that we don't truly understand yet? The Judeo-Christian belief very openly tries to explain the nature of our universe. The book of Genesis tells us how God created all we know in six days; that he spoke light and the earth into being...that he made man from clay and woman from man. It's true that the understanding of these passages has grown more passive over time. Many Christians and Jews now perceive this written word as metaphor. But was this always the case? Or do we view our religious beliefs in the context of our own scientific understanding?

In other words, to the extent that any given religion is fabricated, does it not exist, in part, to give dimension to the nature of phenomena that is simply not understood yet? Until the classical astronomers came about, what reason did Judeo-Christians have for NOT believing the earth was the center of the universe? Until modern-day geology and astro-physics, what reason did they have to NOT believe that the earth was created in a day? Until Darwin, what reason did they have to NOT believe that man was simply molded from clay? I would contend that they had no reason not to believe such things because they had no alternative understandings regarding them. We are living breathing conscious beings on a small planet next to a star in a vast universe. Trying to comprehend that without some apriori knowledge of basic physics and biology is like trying to build a skyscraper in the fashion of a mud-hut; good luck with that.

And so most religions ascribe some supernatural force or intent, often personified, to the origins of what we recognize as reality, I believe, to give a context of order and sense to things we can't yet explain. Why would our ethical nature be any different? It seems very ethereal and subjective to us at this point in time. Psychologists, philosophers, biologists, and sociologists all have their own ideas but we seem to have no unified understanding of ethics. Ah, but this is where religion's treads sink deepest. A Christan 1,000 years ago would have told you that that the earth was created in a day. Is it unbelievable to think, given our current lack of understanding regarding the biological and psychological nature of ethical development, that simply pointing to Jesus' Golden Rule may be looked upon in the same way at some future point?

Some people may find such a conjecture damning, but I believe it exonerates religion in some ways. Man recognizes and celebrates the earth, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself created it. Man recognizes and celebrates himself, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself created him. Man recognizes and celebrates the virtue of the absence of coercion, and concludes that benevolent forces vastly more powerful than himself ordered man to respect one another. We all tend to focus on the conclusion that man has drawn, which may be in err, but in defense of many religious beliefs, they must have had to have taken the step of acknowledging objective reality first. So could it be that morality really does have some objective basis which various religions have long recognized but for which science has not yet been able to cut off at the pass yet?

I'd like to believe this may be the case. As someone who is Agnostic, I feel like I have no real dog in the fight. Instead, I sit back as the quiet observer, watching Theists and Atheists in their existential tug of war. The Theists are dragged slowly through the proverbial mud over time, seemingly having to give concession after concession to the scientific community as their conclusions fail to play out. Meanwhile, Atheists in their attempt to drag the Theists kicking and screaming seem to adhere to science to the point of rigidity. They make nothing little of laying their opponents' conclusions to waste and yet they often stubbornly refuse to recognize the reality of things they can't yet explain. They would be the first to discredit the paradoxical nature of a God without origin but would often be the last to question the paradoxical nature of a universe without origin. In fact, they play so loose and fast with fact and theory that they believe that simply discrediting their opponents' views supposes the answers to the questions their opponents raised in the first place. For instance, Atheists will expound on the intellectual heresy that is "Creationism." Yet when they counter-factually proffer evolution, they cannot explain exactly how a living being becomes conscious. In the same way, they cannot explain how something non-living becomes living. Or even more to the point, in their ultimate refutation of "Creationism" they push the origins of the universe back to the "big bang", and yet fail to explain where such a singularity of matter and energy was derived from.

In this way, Atheists can most certainly, with the help of science, offer a better vision of "how" certain things happen as they do, completely destroying the conclusions of their counterparts. But very rarely, if ever, do we understand "why" something happens. It's because such a question proposes intention. It supposes purpose. Science will always come along explaining how something plays out in the manner it does...but I don't suppose it will ever be able to explain why. And that is the reason, in my belief, that religion naturally arises in human society. It gives us a way to personify reality, to make it more palatable to us. And that's something we do all the time. Psychologists have found that we tend to try to see human faces and features in inanimate objects. For instance, we have a tendency to, when viewing a car from the front, see the headlights as eyes and the grill as a mouth. It may be subconscious, but from the legend of Narcissus to our fascination with Cydonia (the face on Mars), we have a predisposition to see ourselves whenever possible. Likewise, we seem to want to explain reality within the context of our own humanity.

And so, maybe religion is not so much about the conclusions that we draw regarding how the universe unravels, but rather about acknowledging the objective and sometimes paradoxical nature of reality and putting it in a context that we're comfortable with. If this is the case, then maybe our ethical nature is just another phenomenon which religion has a temporary monopoly over. Eventually scientists may come busting down the doors of religious institutions, once again, revealing that the nature of of such behavioral preferences and inclinations are not divine or mystic at all, but instead simply a natural facet of our evolution as conscious beings. But will that acknowledgement make the implications of morality any more real, or even more to the point, will it make the nature of its existence, or our existence for that matter, really any less wonderful or mysterious? No, I don't think it will. I can look around me and revel in the fact that humans all around the world have somehow become predisposed to believe that aggression is not acceptable behavior. And no fabrication in the strata of religious conclusions, or the subsequent refutation of it could ever take the incredible nature of its existence away from me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Politicians are Not Economists

This morning, as I was flipping around to various cable news channels before I took off for work, I managed to catch a Democrat Congressman discussing some of the details of the Baucus plan. I don't remember his name and I'm fairly certain that he's not a prominent member. His defense of various sections of the bill was pretty deplorable at best, but there was one unquestioned explanation that left me astounded.

There's a part of this bill, discounting the possibility of it being removed, that would essentially force people to buy medical insurance. They would do so by leveling a somewhat large tax against anyone who refuses to buy medical insurance. Now, this is obviously a pretty horrible idea on the grounds that the federal government is essentially forcing citizens to purchase something. Most of us would have some curiousity regarding the ethical nature of a law that imposed a heavy tax on us for not buying a computer, yet somehow we think it's just fine to do that with medical insurance. However, this isn't even what surprised me. What really got me going is when he tried to spin out some tautology claiming that one of the reasons insurance is so expensive, and why this plan would cut down on its expense, is that there aren't enough people purchasing insurance and that if we forced them to do so then premiums would come down.

Now, I'm not sure if I was more caught of guard by his absurd and misleading assertion or the fact that none of the idiots on Fox and Friends had the brain power to be critical of that statement. And while I think he could ALMOST get away with saying something that stupid within the context of the bill itself and the subsequent government corruption of the health care market, I just think it's absolutely crazy that he got away with saying something that stupid as if it was matter of fact.

As is often the case in economics, breaking things down into a simple analogy often helps people understand a more complicated issue; Let's say we're observing a company that sells apples. They currently have the capacity to keep about 1,000 apples in stock for the roughly 1,000 customers they get on average daily. All things being equal, what would be the expected effect, on the price of any given apple, if we were to suddenly flood that market with an additional 200 customers a day? Would the apples become cheaper?

The obvious answer, in the short run, is most certainly "No." If you greatly increase the demand for apples by 200 in a market structure that currently supports 1000 apple purchases, the immediate effect, you would think, would be an INCREASE in prices. Now, in the long run, given that such a business would be allowed to earn a profit, if it's OK with Michael Moore, and reinvest in his or her capital structure in such a way that would allow them to have the capacity to provide 200 more apples a day, you would expect that prices may eventually return to their previous nominal value. But you certainly wouldn't automatically expect that greatly increasing the demand for something would simply yield lower prices. So why does the Congressman proffer such a notion?

Well, I can't presume to speak for him, but I think he's able to get away with his ludicrous claim because he's not giving you all the facts. Let's take a look at another apple company in which a third party is allowed to arbitrarily place restrictions on them. The company is told that they cannot deny apples to starving people who do not have the money to pay full price for them. The apple company warns this third party that if they are forced to do this, then many of their customers would simply neglect to buy apples until they are starving, at which point they would be forced to give them apples at almost no cost. And they would also warn that this would mean they would have to raise the price of apples for customers who actually purchase them in order to cover their loss. Acknowledging this economic reality, the third party holds a town meeting and tells all in attendance that if they pass a law forcing EVERYONE in the town to at least purchase one apple a day from the store, then prices would not continue to rise as much. Is the third party correct?

In the context of the situation, for which the third party is responsible in the first place, yes. It is true that if everyone in town was forced to purchase an apple, then the apple company could spread the losses from the apples they are forced to give away across a larger amount of apples, easing the price increase on a per apple basis. But is this a normal market phenomenon? Absolutely not. The key here is that this is only the case because the third party is forcing the company to give apples away. The third party appears to the town people as an institution that is simply concerned about the rising price of apples, but the uninformed citizens may be completely ignorant of the fact that such a problem only exists if they first place onerous regulations on that particular business.

This is precisely analogous to the Congressman's explanation. He blindly asserts, incredibly, that increases in demand will lower the price of a good or service. And yet what he's not telling you is that this is entirely predicated on the fact that the government is going to start forcing the health insurance industry to accept customers with pre-existing conditions without setting a realistic premium. If you have AIDS or cancer and demand that an insurance company sell you a $200 a month insurance plan that covers those ailments, then it's clear you're not asking for "insurance" but rather you're just asking them to eat the cost of your health care. If the government forces insurance companies to do this, then there is a high probability that many people will simply wait until they have a condition that demands coverage to purchase it...leaving a smaller actual customer base to cover the losses. So now the government gets to assert that forcing everyone to purchase insurance plans will help stifle (yet, not completely stop) the increased premiums they have brought about with their new mandates on the insurance industry.

It's really amazing to me that politicians get away with saying some of the things they do. Every once in a while we hold their feet to the fire, albeit often over something trivial, in my view. But why does it seem like no one directly challenges them when they make some of these absolutely backwards and asinine statements? Is it because the American people feel that they aren't as smart as the politicians perhaps? Is it that people just don't pay attention to these things? I'm really not sure. But when you do catch them saying something incredibly outlandish, you start to ask yourself, "Is this person a cunning liar or just another idiot?" I'm inclined to agree with Walter Block as I contend, "Why can't they be both?" Of that I can't be sure. But what I am certain of is that they are often simply wrong.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Defending the Undefendable

Let me start off by saying that I am well aware that the following post will offend and/or enrage many people who are more prone to be led by their raw emotions rather than temperament and reason. But after prying into the story I am about to discuss, and witnessing the overwhelming amount of sheer ignorance regarding the general public on the issue, I decided that I just couldn't let this one go by. I may be the lone voice in the wilderness on this one, but I've absolutely had it with unruly mobs who sit and wait with torch and club in hand, waiting to burn every perceived witch that might enter their periphery.

The aforementioned story is that of Nataline Sarkisyan. Nataline contracted Leukemia at the young age of 14. Over months and years, she had endured several medical procedures which seemed to push her ailment into remission. But around age 17, things started to again look bleak for the young woman. It was decided that her condition was terminal, and that her only real chance for survival was a liver transplant. As the story goes, a battle ensued between the Sarkisyan family and their insurance company, CIGNA, regarding coverage. Eventually, CIGNA came to the table and agreed to cover the procedure. But it was too late; young Nataline had tragically passed away shortly before Christmas in 2007. Her death triggered a lawsuit, brought forth by the family, against CIGNA for murder.

The lawsuit was initially struck down by California courts but the family has pressed forward. They have united with various medical labor unions in California in lobbying for health care reform and have organized various protests against insurance companies, like CIGNA, who they claim "deny" medical coverage and therefore kill people. And there is no end to the amount of similar sentiment that has been shared by news outlets, especially online. A quick Google search for "Sarkisyan death panel" will lead you to an almost inexhaustible trail of sympathetic coverage. More recent outrage has been generated by a protest in front of CIGNA corporate offices in which exchanges between the protesters and employees of CIGNA devolved into fanatical jeering at one another. At one point, an employee was purported to have even flipped off the protesters after an escalation between the two groups. And of course, news outlets, as they so often do, have turned this story into additional publicity for the cause by insinuating (in headlines) that the gesture was made specifically at the mother of the young deceased woman.

Let me preface my statements on the matter by saying that I, by no means, actively support any of the quasi-municipal insurance companies found around the country today. I believe they are in bed with government. I believe they use government regulation and mandates to essentially monopolize the health insurance markets and as such, I believe that they, along with government, are primarily responsible for the egregious inflation in health care costs today. That being said, the predisposition of the public to damn and condemn CIGNA as murderers is absolutely outrageous to me. Do insurance companies ever fraud their customers? Given the enormous volume of customers that any given company may serve, I'm sure that happens now and then, whether intentional or not. I may pick up a loaf of bread at my grocery store that is moldy and not notice it. Now, it may be unclear as to whether the store knowingly sold me moldy bread or if it was an oversight, but fraud has occurred nonetheless, and I should certainly get another loaf or at least get my money back in this case. Very few of us would disagree with this. But is every unsatisfied customer the victim of fraud? Can customers be wrong? According to public sentiment, no. Only businesses can be in err.

What amazed me when I was trying to get to the bottom of this story is that every single liberal-leaning publication provided almost NO INFORMATION about the original case brought against CIGNA. Instead, it felt like they were giving just enough surface detail to lead the public to believe that a heartless insurance company had killed a customer by denying coverage. I had to dig a lot deeper to find anything of substance. The first questions that occurred to me were those regarding the details of the family's medical coverage. It seemed to me that every single story just claimed "insurance denial" and never went into what kind of plan and coverage they had in the first place. If, hypothetically, her family's plan did not cover transplants of any kind at all, would these detractors still see CIGNA as being at fault for denying such coverage?

My short answer is "Yes." If all of these people who have been up in arms were even remotely concerned about the truth, they would dig deeper to ask these questions. But instead we're left with an angry mob that just parrots the rage directed at large insurance companies by so-called victims...and they never seem to want to know why a service had been denied or if IT WAS EVEN PAID FOR! If I went to the store and only bought bread, and later I died from dehydration, would my family be allowed to sue that store for murder because it "denied" me water? Or does the fact that I never paid for water even enter into the equation for these people? I honestly don't even think that it does. I think, ultimately, people who react in this way simply feel that the circumstance of human need justifies some egalitarian notion of slavery...that I "owe" my labor or the product of my labor to another human simply because they have human needs. This point may be somewhat tangential but I just wanted to highlight the fact that I don't believe the point of contention for these people even hinges on the existence of fraud.

But if you actually obtain some of the hard facts surrounding this case, it starts to become even more ridiculous. It turns out that the family's coverage comes through an employer group plan that contracted an ASO account with CIGNA. And for those who don't work in the medical reimbursement field, I'll help clear this up; Many employer based insurance plans are actually constructed by the employer or intermediary groups...this includes everything from the payments to the terms of coverage. However, often the employer or group does not want to administer the coverage themselves for various reasons. So they will set up an account (kind of like a savings account actually) with a large insurer like CIGNA, AETNA, or Anthem (OH-KY-IN BCBS) to actually administer the coverage and billing aspect (ASO- Administrative Services Only).

Now, granted, if a coverage issue should arise, on-staff doctors and various physicians at these companies are responsible for determining if reimbursement for services falls within the means of the contract for the employer or group, BUT it is the employer or group that determines the outline of the plan...not the insurance company. In the case of young Nataline, physicians at CIGNA had determined that the risk of the operation pushed it outside of the bounds of the coverage outlined by Mr. Sarkisyan's employer. CIGNA's critics, and the public at large, have, in a knee-jerk reaction, lashed out at CIGNA for the denial, claiming they deny such coverage because they only care about profits. All this even though, ironically, the issuance of such a claim would have come at NO COST to them at all as they simply disperse reimbursement from the ASO savings account of the employer. They were in no position to lose or save ANY of their own money. And even worse, although their attempt to make an exception and cover the procedure was ultimately made too late, this actually would have been money coming out of their own pockets (profits) to provide an expensive service to someone whom they had no such agreements with...and they STILL come out of it all as villains in the public eye.

The family and their lawyer, Mark Geragos (who is best known for defending upstanding citizens such as Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson), have continued to press on with legal proceedings against CIGNA. Let me be clear that my main contention isn't with the family itself...I don't pretend to know the kind of grief they must be going through and I most certainly couldn't tell you that I'm privy to every single detail, or that if I felt their overwhelming loss that I couldn't ever be found taking a similar path. My contention is with the masses, whose predisposition to vilify private industry and whose genuine dearth of curiosity has led them to use this family's plight as a whipping post for their perceived enemies. I can tolerate people who are dead-set in their beliefs, but I cannot tolerate people who are this way simply because they refuse to be critical and ask important questions.

Constantly we hear the incessant mantra that insurance companies are just out to make profits. CIGNA brings home an average, after taxes, of 4.1% profits annually. That means even if you took every single penny of return away from those "fat-cat" CEOs, your $1,000 procedure would still cost you $959. So great...maybe your ego would be satiated but your wallet still takes a kick in the pants. The problem with our system is the cost of the care itself...not insurance company profits. Meanwhile, companies like Dell pull in over 10% profits annually. Are the prices of computers skyrocketing or dropping? Is the quality of the modern PC getting worse or better? Does Dell deliver a good with better quality and lower prices every year out of the goodness of their heart? Or does competition and profit drive them to provide customers with a better product for a better price? To anyone who is in the know in the slightest regarding economics, profits are certainly not the problem. Yet, not only because these reactionaries do not understand the fundamentals of the free market, but because they don't even understand the fundamentals of this particular story, they are led to believe that corporate greed killed this young woman.

And it's not only their misconception of the role of profits or even the fact that they are seemingly ignorant of how the family's plan was set up that really disturbs me. What disturbs me is that their INITIAL tendency was to make a shoot right at the insurance company. Why? If they would dig a little deeper into the story, it seems as if they should really be lobbing their claims towards Mr. Sarkisyan's employer, who created the plan in which such services were ultimately denied. We bash CIGNA for sticking to his employer's outlines but we don't seem to focus on the employer at all. Did they approach the employer and ask for an exception? Why is that somehow on the back of CIGNA? And probably even more disturbing to me; where were the doctors at UCLA on all of this? You're telling me that these doctors would not provide LIFE-SAVING treatment to a 17 year old girl until CIGNA agreed to compensate them for it? How are these people LESS culpable than ANYONE else in this matter? It seems to me that if you're willing to attack CIGNA for not providing coverage that wasn't paid for in the first place then I couldn't understand why you wouldn't attack the providers or the hospital for not fronting the same bill or at least carrying forth with the operation in lieu of an agreement being met in the interim.

And yet comment after comment, I see people slamming private insurance companies and holding this story up not only as political fodder for a "public option" but for single-payer care! I wonder how many of these people are aware of the tens of thousands of people that get denied care by the government every year through our own Medicare and Medicaid systems. No altruistic intentions or softly spoken rhetoric can deny economic realities. All resources are scarce...this translates directly to the medical profression as with any and every other profession. There is nothing the government can do, short of enslaving its people and drastically decreasing our standard of living, to fundamentally alter the price structure that results from the reality of scarcity. In fact, their attempts to do so have served ultimately not to decrease costs or or provide more coverage, but rather to raise costs and provide less coverage. At best, they can only mask the realities of scarcity with the facade of "free health care" and progressive taxation. But government cannot play god. It cannot provide services of unlimited number and quality to the masses. It too, as it always has and will do, rations the care it provides...it has no options. It's bad enough that supporters of such moves are hyper-critical towards private industry without asking any questions, but it's even worse that they could be hyper-supportive of government industry without asking some questions as well.

Regardless of one's opinions on public policy, the points outlined above should be on the minds of anyone interested in the Sarkisyan case. To me, these are all very important questions that I don't see being asked by anyone publicly. Surely we can all agree that there are specifics about this case that none of us are privy to. But for that reason alone, shouldn't we not be so quick, as a society, to slam CIGNA? Outside of the specifics, even some of the important general questions I brought to light in this post have not been answered yet. Have we gotten to the point, as a culture, that guilt simply isn't predicated on the facts anymore, but instead on the emotional disposition of the masses? I've often pointed out in my writings that this is exactly what is wrong with democracy. For all its praise and glorification, if democracy has simply become a vehicle of force to be controlled by the whims of an irrational and thoughtless public in order to burn witches at the stake, then I want nothing to do with it.

Friday, October 9, 2009

And the Winner is...

This morning it was revealed that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace prize "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen national diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Now I'm not going to sit here and knock Obama down for receiving the award. At the end of the day, the Nobel Prize Committee is a private organization and they can bestow whatever accolades they wish on any person. But I have to say this is one more crooked feather in the cap of that committee. I just think it's become almost a joke; does anyone think the nominations reflect actual substantive efforts to reach peace or is it merely, as I posit, a showering of political affection and affinity?

Let's look at the U.S. presidents who have been bestowed with this honor:

  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Jimmy Carter
  • Barack Obama

Now, without pointing out the obvious commonality in the political bent of these nominees, I think it's safe to say that these people did not win by improving their peoples' standard of living with great economic policies. But if the Nobel Peace Prize is about fostering peace, exactly how did these bozos get on the ticket? I do have to give some slack to Jimmy Carter here. Although he did, almost single-handedly, prove Keynesian spending to be anachronistic at best, he actually was, and remains, a huge proponent of peace...not to mention that he's probably the most intelligent president, academically speaking, we've ever had. But these other guys are no friends of peace given their record.

Even Obama has yet to prove this. Awarding the prize to him seems to me to have been a reflexive response to the abhorred foreign policy of the Bush years. Yet, Obama in his tenure thus far has followed through with, if not escalated, those policies. Granted he TALKS a lot more about peace. And yet, he's still on the same timeline Bush left for Iraq, he's ramped up operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and (amazingly) his administration seems to be preparing for possible military action to impede Iran's nuclear development. Rhetoric is fine, but one would hope that some type of actionable achievements to those ends would have been brought to bear for such an adornment.

Of course, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to see that the committee has put their political views and current sentiment before the quality of their nominees a few other times in its history. It's a little hard to ignore the fact that they've failed to nominate Mahatma Gandhi or John Paul II but have nominated, among others, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. That's one hell of a track record. And if that doesn't convince you that politics is prime here, consider that nominations start in September (before Obama was even elected) and ended in February (less than two weeks after Obama became president). Now maybe in that short time span, Obama had achieved some kind of miraculous move towards world peace that I wasn't privy to, but I'm more inclined to believe that the Nobel Peace Prize is just what it appears to be; less about the actual realization of world peace and more about a throw-away to contemporary neo-liberal sentiment.